What makes something scary?

Some horses are afraid of everything and every horse seems to be afraid of at least something! Plastic bags on the ground, a rain jacket or poncho, leaves blowing in the wind, water bottles, tarps, umbrellas, bridges, a new jump in the arena, his own shadow….the list could go on forever!

This can be extremely frustrating for the rider or trainer, who often doesn’t get why the horse is so scared, or, often, can’t even figure out what the animal is scared of. Temple Grandin, in her latest book, Animals Make Us Human, includes an interesting discussion of how fear for an animal is often directly proportional to the amount of control the animal has over the situation. I thought it was a really interesting passage, so I’ll re-print part of it below:

When you’re working with animals, novelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. They don’t want new things shoved into their faces, and people don’t either. But if you give animals and people a new thing and let them voluntarily decide how to explore it, they will.

Unfortunately, riders and trainers often get in too big of a hurry and want to speed the process along. They try and force the horse over the bridge, through the scary gate, or past the lady with the huge umbrella and ugly green hat. When we resort to force and punishment, the object becomes even more frightening to the animal. 

Many horse trainers advocate a concept of approach and retreat, which can work wonderfully. Basically, you allow the animal to approach as far as it comfortably wants to approach, then allow the animal to retreat. You alternate approaching and retreating from an object, gradually getting closer, and rewarding the animal when progress is made. Target training fits in great with this–the horse already understands follow the target, so he can then approach the new object by following a target towards it. 

Although not always practical, an alternative way could be to remove the trainer altogether and let the animal explore the novel object without any pressure from the handler. I’ve tried this with horses before, and it can work wonderfully. For example, many horses are afraid to step across a tarp.

However, if you put a tarp in a pasture with half a dozen horses, they’ll most likely be standing on the thing before too long, pawing and investigating. Horses are innately curious and if one brave horse is willing to approach the tarp first, the rest will often soon follow. Without a trainer present, the horse feels completely in control of the situation. If the tarp becomes too scary, he can immediately turn and run away–there is absolutely no pressure or force making him stay. Being able to approach and retreat on his own helps build the horse’s confidence. 

It’s probably a good idea to balance these techniques. A horse who is allowed to explore novel objects at liberty will be more confident about his surrounding and less likely to spook when he encounters new distractions on the trail or at a show.

However, it is also good to work with the horse online or in the saddle. If the trainer goes gently and slowly, the horse will learn to trust the trainer’s suggestions, rather than balk or come up with his own plan. If the horse learns that he can depend on the rider to work with him through scary situations, he’ll be more likely to follow the rider’s guidance when they encounter new and novel situations in the future.

Buy Your Own Copy of Animals Make Us Human Here

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